Memes: Viruses of the Mind?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What is it

Gangnam style, Lolcats, and Chuck Norris’ superhuman feats are all memes – units of cultural transmission – that spread through the internet. But when the term was originally coined, memes were posited as vehicles of a kind of evolution, similar to genes and biological evolution. So are the memes that colonize our brains simply those that survive natural selection? Don’t we get any say in the viruses that populate our minds? What happens if the fittest memes are also the most detrimental to us? John and Ken explore the mutations in their minds with Susan Blackmore from the University of Plymouth, author of The Meme Machine.

Listening Notes

When people think of memes, they think first of the Internet and new expressions or viral happenings like Gangnam style, emojis, or planking – that is not exactly what is at stake in this show. Rather, John and Ken want to discuss a serious scientific hypothesis about the evolution of human culture. John suggests that memes are to cultural evolution what genes are to biological evolution. So all that genes want, according to the selfish gene hypothesis, is to replicate themselves by undergoing a competitive selection process. Memes are self-replicating too and provide instructions for building beliefs and emotions in our brains. But ideas don’t make actual physical copies of themselves like genes do, says Ken. The mechanism is different, yes, but how is that problematic? Ken says that while his ideas might influence John’s, they can never be transferred. But, John argues, Ken just did! It’s just like how culture or language or religion is passed on generation through generation. But Ken pushes back: ideas don’t literally replicate themselves in our brain. Why not, asks John? Ken insists that we actively choose which ideas to accept and which to reject, and the duo explores the selfish meme hypothesis.

John and Ken welcome guest Susan Blackmore, a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, as well as author of The Meme Machine. Susan explains that her fascination with memes started when she read Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, which lead her to reread The Selfish Gene. John asks what exactly a meme is, and Susan explains it is information copied with variation and selection; she sticks to Richard Dawkins’ original way of defining this concept and adds that we are bombarded all day with memes which have a huge selection pressure. Ken asks Susan about the difference between how scientific ideas spread versus how religious ideas spread. Susan explains that memes are practically information in our brains that we copy by telling stories, singing, and other activities. So why do some memes spread and others don’t? We can think of some spreading because they are true, or some spreading because they are viral and trick their way into our brains even though they are not true or useful. Religion is close to the latter, and science to the former. The difference is that scientists have picked up a lot of memes to do, say, statistics. Religion also operates with the processes of passing on and copying, but they are full of nasty tricks to get us to believe what is being told. The concept of religion as being passed on as meme is further discussed in the show with reference to the spiritual side of the meme machine and the alaya plane of habit in Buddhism.

John asks Susan what the word ‘meme’ adds to our already existing concept of ‘idea.’ Susan replies that not all memes are ideas, and not all ideas are memes. She brings up the concept of the memes-eye view, and Ken expresses that people have an interest in having ideas that are true – the ideas themselves do not have an interest. Susan further explains the memetic concept of the self, and talks with John about selves versus self-concepts. John, Ken, and Paul welcome questions from the audience and talk about universal Darwinism and meme theory.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:30): Caitlin Esch explores why certain ideas spread so widely and what makes an idea like planking catch on.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:36): Ian Shoales spreads ideas faster than a meme in his speedy speech on cultural propagation and the viral memes we all know and love. 

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Susan Blackmore, Professor of Psychology, University of Plymouth

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